A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Since A Christmas Carol first appeared on December 17, 1843 (10,000 copies sold in ten days and three editions within a month), there have been more Scrooges on stage, screen, and radio than Ebenezer could shake a stick at. The first was Dickens himself, in readings he performed through the 1850s. (They were partly designed to spread the story's underlying message--that it was high time to bring back the hearty old Christmas traditions that Dickens's dour age had consigned to the lower classes; in his era few workers got even Bob Cratchit's half-day leave on Christmas day.)
Others who made A Christmas Carol their own were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lionel Barrymore, and Alec Guinness (radio), and Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson, and Laurence Olivier (recordings). The first film version was an Essanay silent production done in Chicago in 1908, followed 30 years later by the excellent MGM treatment (with Reginald Owen as Scrooge); the beloved and, to many, definitive 1951 Alistair Sim version; Mr. Magoo in the 60s; and a 1972 full-length animation. (Albert Finney's 1970 musical deflation, Scrooge, and George C. Scott's and Henry Winkler's recent cute curmudgeons probably have their defenders somewhere.) Thea Musgrave wrote an operatic version for the Virginia Opera, and of course each year over a dozen major theatrical productions burst forth in places like Louisville, Dallas, and Milwaukee. In 1979 there was even a Broadway reggae/rock version called Comin' Uptown, with Gregory Hines as a Harlem skinflint.
But for Chicagoans over the last decade it's been Goodman Theatre's Christmas Carol that has set the season. Except for the disastrously overblown technical monstrosity exported to the Auditorium Theatre in 1984, Goodman's Carol has preserved next to all of the immediacy, compassion, and joy of this perfect Christmas tale. (Even if it's sacrilege to say so, for pure emotional impact it outweighs the Nativity story itself.) Goodman's success is the sum of Larry Sloan's faithful "story theater" adaptation; Larry Schanker's warmhearted musical arrangements; some very devoted directors, from 1978's Tony Mockus to 1987's Michael Maggio; and over the last four seasons, the broad-mindedness to employ nontraditional casting--at the risk of alienating purists who imagine Carol is their own literary country club.
(Goodman also practices what Dickens preaches by requesting audience members to deposit canned foods in a lobby bin, part of the city's "Sharing It" program to feed the needy. This year Goodman is also part of "A Season of Concern," a yearlong fund-raising effort by the Chicago theater community to raise $500,000 to fight AIDS, a cause inspired in part by the memory of J. Pat Miller, Goodman's first Ghost of Christmas Past and one of Chicago's great artistic losses.)
What always works like a charm in Carol is Dickens's secret formula: even (or particularly) if we don't deserve it, we all want a second chance. So does Scrooge, though he doesn't know it till the enchantment's over. For six decades this miserable old miser has so shut his heart against the world that now he's anesthetized, unable to feel the ripple of cruelties caused when one man tries to subtract himself from the human race. In some ways it's similar to It's a Wonderful Life, though in the Capra classic it's the good things that wouldn't have happened rather than the bad things that have and will that point the lesson.
Although Scrooge's coldness is designed to protect him from further heartbreak, of course it can't. Not from the series of redemptive shocks he receives: seeing his younger self reject Belle's love for the soul-shrinking sake of money he's too cheap to spend, watching the Cratchit family succumb to everything but bad spirits, discovering that his nephew's kindness was no ploy, staring at his open grave with nothing to show for a grasping lifetime but the bad notices he'll get at his funeral.
The stick-and-carrot device behind Dickens's scare tactics is probably the shrewdest applied psychology in all literature: after Ebenezer's all-night ordeal comes the wonderful, conditional escape, that second chance that's what Christmas is all about. In giving Scrooge (and us) this reprieve, Dickens finally, gloriously remints the cliche, "Where there's life, there's hope." (There's still time, Ronnie.)
In his first Goodman Carol, resident director Michael Maggio proves a worthy Dickens miracle worker--one who isn't afraid to indict as well as delight. The references to hunger and the homeless--"thousands in want of comfort"--feel all too timely. Joe Nieminski's now-venerable rolling sets still carry their considerable weight, and the special effects are reliably dazzling: swinging flash pots, sepulchral fog, a star-spangled sky, a haunted door knocker, Scrooge's house materializing as it revolves, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arising from the dead (twice in fact on opening night), and later soaring up and away.
Maggio's biggest change is moving up the intermission to right after the Ghost of Christmas Past has done its work (before, it was after the first Cratchit scene). Shrewdly, the first act now ends in a cliff-hanger, a pivotal point where Scrooge's redemption is far from certain.
Other nice touches include Schanker's freewheeling use of the theater's new synthesizer (it eerily accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Future and merrily underlines Scrooge's reclamation scene) and a richly harmonized assortment of new carols (including this year's theme song, "Christmas Is Coming, the Goose Is Getting Fat," and the Cratchits' pretty ballad "The Poor Man's Wish"). With Beatrix Rashid's choreography bursting its seams, the Fezziwig Christmas ball looks more riotous than ever. And--to continue the tradition of creative casting--the electrifying Ghost of Christmas Past is Linda Kimbrough (showing that heaven at least passed the ERA).
What remains evergreen is William Norris's crotchety old and exultantly new Scrooge. Over nine seasons Norris has inevitably matured in the part; playing Ebenezer from the inside out, he now depicts him as much more weary than mean, a man so burnt-out he lacks even the energy to snarl at a world that had learned to ignore him anyway long ago. Scrooge's inertia turns comic as Norris desperately bargains with the nonnegotiable spirits. His humbling of course finally proves he's human.
Not all has been improved. Though Robert Scogin (who played the first Bob Cratchit nine years ago) hasn't lost the earnest hopefulness that keeps this man's head above water, and Pat Bowie is efficient as his practical, protective partner, the too-tentative Cratchit scenes feel a tad flatter than in past seasons, the only perceptible decline from previous productions.
This year's special strengths include John Mohrlein as the deliciously venal old-clothes man who buys up Scrooge's paltry legacy, William Brown as Scrooge's devoted nephew, James Otis as Marley's hectoring ghost, Terence Gallagher as young (and not yet greedy) Scrooge, and Sally Murphy as Belle, the girl he left behind. Dennis Kennedy and Susan Osborne-Mott make a crowd-pleasing pair of bumptious Fezziwigs; and of course, as the tenth of his line, there's five-year-old Kevin Michael Duda playing a suitably serious Tiny Tim (put this in your scrapbook, kid--this is your first notice).
In ten years, Goodman's Christmas Carol has its own ghosts--past, present, and future. They'd all be proud.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Osgood.